Eastern State Penitentiary

The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is a Gothic style fortress, surrounded by 30 foot high stone walls, near downtown Philadelphia. Opening in 1829, the Quaker inspired ESP was the world’s first penitentiary, designed to rehabilitate rather than punish.

An 1855 engraving showing the “wagon wheel” design of ESP

Even today, the architecture of ESP is stunning. John Havilland designed the building, with a center “hub” and a series of cell blocks radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel. It quickly became a model for prisons world-wide, with over 300 similar institutions build on four continents. When one guard stood in the center of the “hub”, he could clearly see down each cell block just by turning around. At the time, it was the most expensive public building ever built. Eastern State Penitentiary had running water before the White House.

A reconstructed cell as it was in 1829

ESP started out as a model for the “Pennsylvania System” of reform, which used solitary confinement for rehabilitation. Reformists felt that isolation led to reflection and ultimately penitence. Each prisoner was allowed one book – The Bible. Each cell received natural light from a single skylight, which represented the “eye of God”.

A cell today
The condition of one of the cells today

Upon entering the prison or leaving their cells, the guards put hoods over the prisoners heads, so that they would not be seen or recognized by other prisoners. Each cell had a small excercise yard, which was enclosed by high stone walls. Yard time was synchronized so no two prisoners next to each other would be out at the same time.

An individual excercise yard
An excercise yard off the cell

Initially, access to each cell was only from a small door through the excercise yard. Only a small portal opened into the cell blocks, which food was passed through. This eventually became impracticle, and cells were designed for prisoners to enter from the cell blocks through metal doors, which were then covered by heavy wooden sliding doors that blocked out the noise.

One of the cell blocks
One of the original cell blocks

As time went by, the Pennsylvania System of reform started to break down. Overcrowding forced ESP to house more than one prisoner per cell, cell blocks were built with two stories, and ESP evolved into a maximum security prison which housed the like of Willie Sutton and Al Capone.

Individual cell

Eastern State Penitentiary was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and was closed in 1971.

Symetrical architecture
One of the double decker cell blocks

I highly recommend the tour at ESP if you are in Philadelphia. The architecture is amazing, the prison eerie, and the history immense. The self guided audio tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi, and is quite good. One gets a great feel for how the prison system “evolved” from 1829.

ESP Tower

Today, Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a museum and historic site, and is open year round with guided and self-guided tours. Special events include: “Terror Behind the Walls”, which is the annual Haunted House fundraising event taking place the weekend prior to Halloween. Each July for Bastille Day, a reinterpretation of the storming of the Bastille takes place with an actress playing the part of Marie Antoinette yelling, “Let them eat Tastykakes,” as thousands of Tastykakes are thrown down from the Gothic walls.

Al Capone’s reconstructed cell.

Al Capone spent less than a year within ESP’s walls. He was there on a weapons charge, and seemed to have it slightly better than the other inmates. Personal effects included a phonograph, artwork, wing chair and lamps. Something tells me he ate better than the others too.

About icefogger

Just a basic, down to Earth, laid back type of guy here, who loves the outdoors, the indoors, jazz on the turntable, a fire in the woodstove, the northern lights blazing across the sky, and the company of good friends. View all posts by icefogger

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